As the impact of university tuition fees becomes clear, David Hewitt speaks to students heading abroad and asks is Yorkshire facing a brain drain?
Shortly after Westminster gave the green light to universities in England and Wales to charge up to £9,000 a year for tuition, the universities of Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, York all confirmed they would be charging the maximum amount, while Leeds Metropolitan University and Sheffield Hallam both charge annual fees of up to £8,500.
Though, as is roundly pointed out, students are not obliged to start paying back the money they borrow for the fees until they begin earning in excess of £21,000 a year – and even then monthly repayments are relatively affordable – this still leaves prospective students facing leaving university with not just a degree but an eye-watering £27,000, or even £36,000 worth of debt.
Unsurprisingly, there was no shortage of commentators warning that not just students but entire families would leave England and Wales altogether in search of more-affordable higher education. So, as Freshers’ week becomes a distant memory and students head back to their homes for Christmas, is it right to say that Yorkshire is now in the midst of a brain drain as legions of so-called tuition fee refugees leave not just the county but the country altogether in search of cheaper degrees?
Figures out last week showed a record fall in the number of people taking up places at UK universities. Nearly 54,000 fewer people started courses this autumn than in 2011 and England, where maximum fees have almost trebled, saw the sharpest drop with a 6.6 per cent fall.
Some have said last year’s figures were artificially inflated by students, who would normally have taken a gap year deciding instead to take advantage of low fees, while others have pointed to a demographic dip in the number of 18-year-olds for this academic year.
However, the impact of the tuition fees increase cannot be ignored, says Mark Hamilton, founder of A Star Future, an advisory service for schools and students in the UK who are interested in studying abroad. Right now, he’s helping sixth-formers at Tadcaster Grammar apply to universities in Norway and the Netherlands and students in Harrogate choose between institutions in Italy.
“It is clear that the increased fees in the UK have made students think more seriously about going abroad,” he says. “In terms of actual numbers of those going abroad, there is very clear evidence of an increase, most notably with the Netherlands. This is because it has a combination of reasonable tuition fees, financial support in some circumstances, courses taught in English and, more importantly, very good universities.
“I would estimate that there has been a 300 per cent increase in students from the UK, including from Yorkshire, going to Dutch universities in 2012, but we are starting from a very low base.”
While the great escape of bright young things from the county is expected to really start taking off over the next few years, some students have already taken the initiative and their experiences overseas could encourage more to follow their lead in the future.
For Jasmine McNiven, the decision to leave the UK for the United States was not a hard one to make. A fan of Americana music and the country’s south, the 20-year-old from Leeds is enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin.
Though American universities are renowned for being expensive, she explains that, compared with staying at home, the benefits of experiencing a new country and a new culture make for a better all-round investment.
“It isn’t cheap to study abroad by any means,” she says. “However, I wanted to study in an environment I knew I’d love, and Austin is just great.”
Furthermore, Jasmine notes, when the funding available to foreign students enrolling at US universities, as well as the fact that she is able to rely on her family for support, are taken into consideration, being an alumna of a prestigious American college seems a solid long-term investment.
However, it’s not just about economic considerations. After all, says Hamilton, if students’ only consideration was the price of further education, England’s universities would be empty, while all English 18-year-olds would be emigrating.
For Grace Miller, the decision to study abroad was made for a number of reasons. Though the 18-year-old acknowledges that simple economics did to some extent encourage her to move from Harrogate to Maastricht in the Netherlands, where she is now in the first year of a European Studies degree.
Here, annual fees for EU students are £2,400 a year, while the cost of living, including rent is also lower than in some major UK cities. For this, students get a degree from an institution ranked eighth-best world new university by the QS World University Rankings and 115th overall in the Times Higher Education rankings, as well as the chance to learn another language or two.
“I would be lying if I said it didn’t push me to go abroad, but I know that I would have gone anyway even if the fees stayed the same,” Grace explains. “I chose to study abroad because I want to gain international experience.
“I’m doing a European Studies BA, which is filled with political, sociological and historical analysis and so, for me, it is much more helpful if I can discuss these issues in an international context. Around 60 per cent of students here are from countries other than the Netherlands, and the physical location of Maastricht is great as it is close to Amsterdam and Rotterdam as well as Aachen in Germany and Bruges in Holland, making it a lot easier to experience a different culture first hand.”
Indeed, it is this idea of experiencing first-hand another culture that would appear to be driving Yorkshire’s students to look beyond the borders of England and Wales and pursue their higher education abroad, more so even that the prospect of racking up £24,000 worth of debt, as they would if they stayed at home.
“There is increasing evidence that the most important motivation for going abroad, beyond a personal desire to experience life in a different country, is an awareness that the job market is now global,” explains Fordham.
“Students are looking abroad to enhance their employability. As so many British students are now having to go abroad to find work then it makes sense to prepare for that eventuality.”
The challenge facing universities in Yorkshire, and across the rest of England in general, therefore, is to offer degree courses with such an international outlook, giving students value for money in what has become a globalised market. And it is a challenge the county’s universities are rising to.
The University of Sheffield, for instance, has stepped up its efforts to encourage students to spend some of their time overseas.
“At the university, we offer fantastic opportunities for students wanting to study at a top university while also gaining life experience abroad,” a spokesman said. “We really embrace international study at the University of Sheffield and our scholarships available for a year abroad, make an international experience more affordable for students whilst gaining a degree from a world-leading university right here in the UK.”
With Leeds, Sheffield and York universities all set to publish their admission figures for the present academic year at the start of 2013, it remains to be seen whether such a commitment to offering students all the benefits of studying abroad without going so far as to take a whole degree overseas has helped to offset the potential damage done by rising fees, or if Yorkshire is indeed facing a brain drain as “tuition fee refugees” spread their wings in search of better value for their money.
How tuition fees soared
In December of 2010, MPs voted in favour of plans to raise tuition fees for full-time undergraduates from £3,500 a year to £6,000 from 2012-13 and “in exceptional circumstances”, up to £9,000.
According to the Office for Fair Access (Offa), 56 of the 123 universities and university colleges in England and Wales have introduced maximum fees for at least some of their courses, pushing the average annual rate of tuition fees up to £8,629.
However, students are only required to pay back the money loaned to cover fees and living expenses when they are earning more than £21,000 a year, with repayments linked to salary on a sliding scale.